Given how many epic, sprawling, multi-character stories about good, evil, and the gray areas in between have found their way to television in the past few years — from HBO’s fantastical yet earthy “Game of Thrones” to the swords, sandals, and sexcapades of Starz’s soon to conclude, and underrated, “Spartacus” — it makes sense that someone decided to apply anew the “biblical proportions” approach to the actual source material for that phrase.
That those someones are reality show Midas Mark Burnett (“Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” and “The Voice”) and his wife, Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”), may be a surprise to those unaware that the pair are devout Christians.
The 10-hour, five-part “The Bible” — the first two-hour installment of which premieres Sunday at 8 p.m., and which concludes, naturally, on Easter — is a passion project for the couple.
Downey, who also costars as Mother Mary, and Burnett take a sort of “greatest hits” approach to the bestseller, splitting time between the Old and New Testaments. The stories — Noah’s Ark, the Exodus, the tumbling walls of Jericho, the crucifixion and resurrection — are likely well-known to just about anyone who spent time in Sunday school or saw any of the various other attempts at Bible adaptations over the years, including the star-studded Cecil B. Demille network perennial “The Ten Commandments.”
So the challenge is to bring something new to well-trodden ground; and in the just over three hours that I sampled, there were few fresh elements on display beyond contemporary CGI updates of spectacles like the parting of the Red Sea and the vision of the burning bush.
Instead, “The Bible” takes a familiarly earnest and plodding approach with a lot of overwrought acting by a cast of a thousand accents. (Noah sounds Scottish; many of the Israelites hail from England, apparently; and the Pharaoh appears to be American.)
The styles of acting also range from very natural to Shakespearean melodrama to almost too contemporary. (At one point, when Abraham is dealing with the displeasure of Sarah and Hagar, he appears to look skyward with a “Women, amirite?”-type expression.)
It may also be impossible to intone phrases like “Let my people go” after so many iterations with anything resembling freshness. But the proclivity for the kind of bellowing normally reserved for Captain Kirk railing against Khan starts to become comical as each character histrionically shouts up to the heavens in turn: “Isaac!” “Moses!” “David!”
To Downey and Burnett’s credit, unlike the perfectly coiffed movie stars of yore, there is a lot of dirt in the first few hours, contributing to a palpable sense of heat, grime, and blood. And while it would be impossible to please everyone when dealing with such sensitive (and, to many, sacred) material, you can feel the heartfelt solemnity throughout. It’s clear they take the work seriously.
Theological scholars can determine whether “The Bible” achieves the stated goal of endeavoring to “stay true to the spirit of the book,” but as entertainment, even the most faithful believers might find some scenes unintentionally comic or snoozy, or wish for a stronger cast, direction, and writing to bring these stories to life once again. As is, “The Bible” sometimes feels too facile, like a colorful Sunday school pop-up book come to life, albeit one with much more graphic violence (which some parents might want to preview before sharing with their kids).